On the September 23 edition of AEW Dynamite Chris Jericho beat Claudio Castagnoli to become the 37th Ring of Honor (ROH) World Champion.
The match was odd for a few reasons. Unlike most world championship matches, this was the first match on a packed episode of television. That same night Jon Moxley would beat Blackpool Combat Club stablemate Bryan Danielson in a tournament final to become a three time AEW World Champion and AEW homegrown fan favorites The Acclaimed would scissor their way to the AEW tag team championship, beating the interloping team of Swerve Strickland and Keith Lee. It was a busy night to say the least, and the title change for a semi-resurrected promotion could have been easily ignored in favor of the new hotness of AEW’s own brand.
Putting the belt on the 51-year-old Jericho, who had spent most of his career in the mid-card with an aging rock and wrestling “sports entertainer” gimmick and 20 years of WWE service to his name raised eyebrows, especially since the flashier Canadian grappler beat Castagnoli, with his ROH pedigree, and who himself had only beaten former champ Jonathan Gresham two months ago under contentious circumstances, early at the Final Battle Card on July 23.
At first blush, crowning Jericho the new ROH champion spits in the face of that title’s history and given our notions of what that promotion’s standard bearers are ‘supposed’ to look like seemed like a grave misstep. It’s the kind of booking that shows why it’s impossible for one owner to effectively manage two separate wrestling promotions without favoring one and burying the other, as I wrote when Tony Khan first acquired ROH back in March.
I admit, I held off writing this column because I initially thought that Jericho’s reign would be brief. After his victory over Bandido and resultant promo wherein he challenged all former ROH champions and stated his intent to “desecrate” ROH’s legacy (complete with Judas Effect elbow to ring announcer Bobby Cruise), I now suspect he’s being set up for a longer term run.
And I couldn’t be happier.
Jericho’s title reign will help Ring of Honor’s brand, which has been largely lost since Tony Khan acquired it. In the run up to his purchase, Khan had acquired many former ROH performers only to see them foundering in the mid-card or used as outright enhancement talent. In my first column about Khan’s ROH purchase [Cautionary stories over ROH sale] I cautioned about the need to fully separate the brands, lest one be seen as subservient to the other. Unfortunately that’s where we are today. Despite ROH’s proud history, it has yet to emerge from AEW’s shadow. ROH does not currently have its own outlet – not even as an independent YouTube show to highlight its performers on their own terms.
Instead, whenever Khan and his creative folks remember, ROH gets time on AEW’s broadcasts whether it helps the brand or not. After relatively few mentions over the past few months, ROH was all over what was marketed as AEW Dynamite’s Third Anniversary. Matches featured ROH talent and repeated mentions of the Code of Honor, but the “ROH Guys” Jay Lethal and Brian Cage lost. The main event saw ROH World Champion Jericho (I’ll get back to him, don’t worry) team with Jericho Appreciator Sammy Guevara against ROH Pure Champion and former Jerichoholic Daniel Garcia with ROH all-around great guy Bryan Danielson in a match that announcers quickly and frequently reminded us was not actually held under ROH auspices.
Former ROH World champions Adam Cole (Bay Bay!) and Kyle O’Reilly were once again paired with Bobby Fish in a rehash of their NXT Undisputed Era stable, only this time playing second fiddle to the Young Bucks Elite squad. Cole and O’Reilly are both injured and Fish has since left AEW for Impact. All-time longest reigning ROH World champ Jay Lethal has aligned himself with Sonjay Dutt as a manager and Giant Gonzalez level talent Satnam Singh in a faction where only Lethal wrestles and loses as often as he wins, even against lesser opponents like Orange Cassidy and Darby Allin. Samoa Joe is the ROH TV champ who rarely appears on TV and the ROH tag titles are currently held by AEW mainstays FTR, whose retro gimmick suits ROH but is not itself a rational connection to the brand. Silas Young and Eli Isom have appeared mostly as enhancement talent, while Josh Woods and Rush are buried in stables designed to get current AEW roster members over. Dalton Castle is in there somewhere, I think, which is mind boggling considering the response he gets with his own flamboyant character.
The lack of differentiation between rosters beyond the plates on ROH’s belts and use of Cruise and Ian Riccaboni on commentary, and continued use of identified “ROH guys” to get “AEW” talent over draws eerie parallels to ill-fated acquisitions past. I previously noted how the same thing happened when Jim Crockett Promotions bought Bill Watts’ UWF, or when WWE won the Monday Night Wars and lost a huge chunk of wrestling fandom with their purchases of ECW and WCW. I hope history is not repeating itself; but then, maybe as he once claimed, Jericho will save us.
Despite appearances, Jericho’s victory and repudiation of everything ROH stands for is an expert-level troll by a performer who has gotten over as a heel with audiences using just about every kind of heat imaginable. In this latest incarnation Jericho positions himself as the antithesis of ROH, which was long known for prizing excellent technical wrestling over flash… but that’s a bit inaccurate. ROH, like every promotion, has had its share of colorful characters. The most successful champions like Samoa Joe, Bryan Danielson, CM Punk and Nigel McGuinness had distinctive looks and could cut effective promos, especially when booked as heels. Late champions like Matt Taven or Dalton Castle (a personal favorite, whose reign was cut short by injury) brought bigger personalities into the mix, while Cody Rhodes’ win echoed his extremely charismatic dad’s accomplishments in the NWA.
While Jericho openly denigrates the ROH belt, drawing heat from his more serious stablemate Daniel Garcia, he is putting on in-ring performances that belie his age. Jericho won the ROH belt from Castagnoli in a solid match which presaged his view of the title by refusing to shake hands with the then-champ and ended with a decidedly dishonorable low blow to Claudio’s castagnolis. His Dynamite defence against Bandido featured more cheating but was also a solid, wrestling first encounter. As great as Jericho has been on the mic throughout his incarnations – from bratty cruiserweight to conspiracy theorist to Y2J to Nick Bockwinkel-Anton Chigurh lovechild to List Keeper to Painmaker – he has delivered consistently strong in-ring performances. He makes good opponents great and great opponents shine and continues to do so while most of his peers are retired, main eventing occasional pay-per views or sadly dead. The current version of Jericho lauds sports entertainment, but the man is a professional wrestler. I can’t help but think that the “sports entertainment” patter coming from a heel is the real instance of trolling. Remember, 25 years ago WCW top guy Kevin Nash disparaged Jericho and a host of smaller, more talented wrestlers like Dean Malenko, Rey Mysterio and Eddie Guerrero as “Vanilla Midgets.” Jericho was never vanilla. At this point in his career he’s the Whole F’n Sundae. And he is being called to raise the profile of a promotion that survived for 20 years on its own by emphasizing workers like himself.
In the wake of AEW’s personnel challenges, Jericho along with Danielson and Moxley, is reported to have stepped up and provided leadership backstage. A late-career title run benefits him and may help stabilize ROH as it tries to find its place with new owners, in a post-Sinclair Broadcasting world.
One of the biggest knocks on Jericho’s ROH title run is likely his age. AEW’s abortive CM Punk experiment failed in part because of a series of injuries to a 40-plus-year-old wrestler. Borrowing from a legitimate sport, one may argue that Punk should never have been made a champion because, just like in baseball, you don’t invest in a pitcher over 35. A year’s worth of build to Punk’s victory culminated in a pair of title runs, the first largely a non-entity due to a foot injury and the second ended after a day by a combination of an arm injury and a promo that shot him in the foot. Jericho himself is coming off a layoff due to a pulmonary embolism. How’s he going to fight if he can’t breathe?
Jericho is 51. His last world title run as AEW’s inaugural champion happened when he was 48 – and he was criticized for being over the hill back then. But this isn’t the same Jericho. The version we got when AEW launched came on the heels of his New Japan run, which saw him fight the likes of Kenny Omega, Tetsuya Naito, Kazuchika Okada and Hiroshi Tanahashi. It also saw the emergence of a new “Painmaker” character and a stockier frame, which Jericho has claimed was intentional to appeal to the Japanese audience’s expectations of how a wrestler should look. In North America Jericho was roundly criticized for his…er…roundness. In March 2022, after his embolism-related layoff, Jericho returned to AEW TV looking absolutely shredded. He has since described his transformation in greater detail in GQ magazine. [Chris Jericho Got So Shredded People Accused Him of Getting Ab Implants | GQ]. Jericho’s version of 51 outstrips most at 31 and his matches since returning reflect that.
Jericho would hardly be the first older champion. Pro wrestlers often have longer careers than athletes in other sports, partly because the cooperative nature of wrestling as performance allows younger, more athletic talent to work around an older, slower opponent. The showmanship in wrestling also seems to improve with age. The matches may be less athletic. Veteran performers build heat or mount comebacks and play to an audience clamoring for their greatest hits. Triple H last won the WWE World championship at 46. Randy Savage won the WCW World title at 46 as well. Historic wrestler Lou Thesz lifted his last NWA title at the same age beating Buddy Rogers in Toronto, which would lead to the formation of the WWWF. Hulk Hogan won his last WWE World title at 48 while Ric Flair, Goldberg, Sting and Terry Funk all won world championships into their 50s. Even Vince McMahon rewarded himself with title runs at 54 (although no one would say that was a good idea). And this ignores the host of regional titles traded between older performers like Verne Gagne and Bockwinkel because those wrestlers have put down roots in the community or have an ownership stake in the promotion itself. At this stage of the game, Jericho looks and moves much better than many of the names on this list, which is already impressive company.
ROH itself has a history of booking older champions, often in service of a “last run” style storyline. The oldest ROH champion to date is Quebecer Pierre Carl Ouellet, better known for his resurgence under a Frankenstein gimmick as PCO. He won the World belt at 51 years, 348 days, making Jericho a whippersnapper by comparison. Adopting a stunt-based style more reminiscent of Sabu than the kind of technical wizardry that defined most of ROH, PCO’s performances were still exciting, and his gimmick-heavy persona made his advanced age a non-factor (although announcers would periodically call it out, much like they did Terry Funk in his ECW run, suggesting that AARP wouldn’t approve of all those moonsaults). PCO now works primarily for Impact Wrestling as part of the “Honor No More” stable, although that could change shortly from a storyline perspective. AEW and Impact have considerable inter-promotional history. While the top-line talent exchanges have cooled since Kenny Omega won the Impact World Championship and brought it to AEW, Frankie Kazarian is currently on loan to Impact, while the Motor City Machine Guns recently appeared on AEW. It’s not hard to see PCO coming over to fight Jericho even if a win is unlikely.
Jerry Lynn lifted the ROH World championship in 2009 at the age of 46, in a story that drew from the success of the movie The Wrestler, with a similar heavy-metal loving protagonist. Lynn’s relatively brief reign was cast as an improbable last run, capped off with a Pro Wrestling Illustrated “Comeback of the Year” award. Lynn would retire as an in-ring performer in 2013 and was an early AEW coaching hire. If Jericho is committed to defending his title against former champions, Lynn is an early and natural matchup. Now 59, depending on his own battle-readiness, Lynn could either be set up as a surprisingly game contender or the victim of a beatdown which draws other former champions like Castle, Danielson or (dare I say it) a returning Punk into their own programs.
Christopher Daniels had his own late-career run as ROH champion in 2017 at the age of 47. He beat Adam Cole in a storyline that prominently featured Bullet Club (and teased a heel turn by the aforementioned Kazarian), losing the title to Cody Rhodes after three months. He is now 52 years old and only semi-retired from in-ring competition. He is also the AEW Head of Talent Relations and is coming off a suspension for his alleged role following Punk’s All-Out metldown. Daniels has remained active; he recently appeared on Impact as well in a 2021 storyline involving current Impact champ Josh Alexander and fellow elder statesman (and 40-plus champion) Christian Cage. Like Jericho, Daniels is helping to pivot wrestling fans’ perceptions of aging and can still hit a pretty sweet moonsault. While he has not figured prominently in AEW’s plans as a singles competitor, he can bring further credibility to Jericho’s run with the belt. He can carry good performers to great matches, and when paired with someone like Jericho who also walks the line between scientific wrestling, cheating, brawling and flying, can still pull out a great match.
However long the Reign of Jericho lasts it guarantees fans interesting promos and very good matches. Toronto fans look forward to the October 12th edition of Dynamite, which will see Jericho defend his belt against Danielson. I have no idea who will win or who I’ll cheer for when I get there (thanks, Elliott!). Danielson has featured prominently in world title programs but has come up short against the last three AEW champions; an ROH victory may help turn back his own clock and set up feuds with Garcia and Castagnoli, who has gone from “Greatest wrestler not to win a world title” to “Why did he only get a two month run?” But Jericho has provided the first coherent, focused program of the ROH Khan era. There is a direction to his determination to beat all former champions, and enough are active (Lethal, Rush, Castle, Joe, Cole or O’Reilly), theoretically available (Eddie Edwards, Davey Richards, Matt Taven, Jay Briscoe, Low Ki or Austin Aries, and we’ll leave Michael Elgin out of the conversation) or intriguing (Kevin Owens, Seth Rollins, CM Punk) even if they’re locked behind their own Forbidden Doors, unless the other Khan can be persuaded.
I’m under no illusions about the likely length of Jericho’s reign or how readily promotions will work together, even as WWE continued to evolve in the post Vince McMahon era. If he’s healthy, I would love to see Jericho continue to subvert ROH fans’ expectations by holding the belt for a while – maybe even breaking Samoa Joe’s single-reign record. But the most poetic outcome for Jericho’s run would be to lose the belt to someone who mixes an appreciation for tradition with a significant upside to his career.
Where’s Cody Rhodes when you need him?
TOP PHOTO: Chris Jericho wins the Ring of Honor World title at AEW Dynamite, at Arthur Ashe Stadium in Queens, New York, on Wednesday, September 21, 2022. Photo by George Tahinos, georgetahinos.smugmug.com